Reading Expiration Dates On Food Can Be Tricky & The FDA Wants To Fix That

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If you're ever stared at a "sell by" label on a carton of milk and wondered what exactly that means, you may be in luck. Thanks to a new announcement from the Food and Drug Administration, reading expiration dates on food could soon become much easier. USA TODAY reports that on Thursday, the FDA officially advised food producers to use the phrase "best if used by" on their expiration date labels across the board.

According to the Washington Post, groceries currently use over 50 different terms to tell consumers exactly when their food expires. The guidance, which is non-binding, is part of an effort to eliminate the confusion that can result from phrases like "sell by" or "best by," USA Today reports. Frank Yiannas, the FDA's deputy commissioner for food policy and response, told the publication that the lack of standardization over food expiration labels results in many Americans needlessly throwing away food that hasn't actually expired yet, and used the example of leaving the market with three bags of groceries.

"When you walk out, you throw one away," Yiannis told USA Today "Sound ridiculous? Of course, it does, but that’s what happens. It's tragic that good food is being thrown away, but also, it's a loss of dollars from consumers' pockets."

Geoff Freeman, president and chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), said in a statement (via the Post) that the "FDA announcement supporting standardized use of 'Best If Used By' is a win for American consumers."

According to USA Today, it was GMA and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an industry group for food retailers, who initially advocated for the change back in 2017. In a statement on its website, FMI celebrated the FDA's decision.

“In 2017, members of the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association offered a nationwide voluntary initiative encouraging the adoption of standard date-label wording on packages that provides guidance concerning the quality and potential degradation of food products, which has implications for food waste reduction," FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin wrote. "We appreciate FDA’s endorsement of the ‘Best if Used By’ date, a moniker of quality."

Meghan Stasz, GMA's vice president of sustainability and packaging, told USA Today that 87% of food products produced by members of the organization already use the "best if used by" designation, and that this is expected to grow to 98% by the end of 2019.

"Food manufacturers spend an increasing amount of resources, time and care in producing food products," Stasz told USA Today. "We don’t want them to throw food away out of confusion. ... We want consumers to eat the products they buy."

Yiannis stressed that the new label standardization isn't binding, and addresses only food quality, not food safety.

"If there's a date label that's about a food-safety issue, at this point [manufacturers] have the latitude to put whatever terminology they need to convey that risk," Yiannis told the Post. "Food producers have the liberty to put date labels on foods however they choose."